The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Seeking North Korea Breakthrough, Seoul Looks to Biden Administration

The Moon administration starts dialogue with the new U.S. administration, hoping to induce Pyongyang to reactivate back channels for negotiations.

Mitch Shin
Seeking North Korea Breakthrough, Seoul Looks to Biden Administration

Then-President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in talk together Sunday, June 30, 2019, outside Freedom House at the Korean Demilitarized Zone

Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

With Joe Biden sworn in as the new president of the United States on January 20 – despite the unexpected storming of the U.S. Capitol by far-right activists in an attempt to subvert the election results – most countries have welcomed the return of an experienced politician to the U.S. presidency.

Four years of former President Donald Trump’s doctrine of “America First” have seriously taken a toll on the faith of the other countries in the U.S. As of January 20, U.S. foreign policy is once again in the hands of someone who knows the importance of alliances and follows the customs of international diplomacy on the basis of integrity and compromise.

While most countries are looking forward to cooperating with the Biden administration, Asia-Pacific countries are still calculating the possible aftermath from China, an ultimate power in the region. Despite the change in administrations, most countries still expect the United States to continue to push partners to participate in Washington-led efforts to isolate China from power and influence in neighboring countries and regions.

Before Biden really ramps up his outreach in Asia, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke over the phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on January 26. The two leaders shared their opinions regarding the way to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s denuclearization process. Xi said he supports the U.S. role in dialogue with both South and North Korea, but experts warn that this support is mostly theoretical. China’s main goal is making sure Seoul does not act as a loyal watchdog of Washington vis-a-vis Beijing. The call was perceived as an attempt to sway Moon’s loyalties before the South Korean leader held his first call with President Biden.

On the same day as the Moon-Xi call, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke over the phone with new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Speaking to Kang, Blinken emphasized Biden’s will to reinforce the alliance and the importance of consistent trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan to handle issues in East Asia. It was the second call between the Biden and Moon administrations after Biden took office. National security officials in both the Blue House and the White House spoke over the phone on January 23 to talk about the peace process on the Korean Peninsula and ways to cooperate toward that goal.

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Kang and Blinken both agreed that the North Korea’s nuclear program is an issue to be handled urgently in the Biden administration and confirmed that they will work together closely to deal with the issue. Moon and Biden have not yet spoken over the phone but a call will take place this week, according to the Blue House.

With the end of the Trump era, Moon also started to reshuffle his team in foreign affairs, but regardless of what Moon does the prospects of bringing both the United States and North Korea back to the table are highly pessimistic. Instead the old school strategy of pressuring North Korea with “strategic patience” is likely being considered by the Biden team.

Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., told The Diplomat that Biden is unlikely to jump at the idea of having a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, even though past U.S. approaches have proven to be failures. “‘Strategic patience’ was a mistake and enormous failure,” according to Wit. “…Many pursued maximum pressure but I think that was a reckless approach.”

Wit suggests that the Obama administration’s approach to making a deal with Iran is a path the Biden White House could take with North Korea. Trump’s insistence on Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization, or CVID, has never been realistic as a productive solution to the nuclear issue. “The best approach is a phased approach for denuclearization, which essentially means rolling back their nuclear program,” Wit said.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken said that “the entire approach and policy toward North Korea will be reviewed” during his tenure. While Blinken mentioned “unspecified diplomatic incentives” as a possible carrot for Pyongyang in an interview with NBC on February 1, experts in Seoul anticipate that Biden will not keen to talk with Kim in person as Trump did.

Considering the faltering prospects of re-engaging in U.S.-DPRK negotiations, Seoul has offered inter-Korean cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic, but Pyongyang has consistently refused the offer by saying that there are no coronavirus cases in North Korea.

Experts say that behind this rejection is Pyongyang’s realization that Seoul cannot persuade Washington to lift devastating U.N.-led economic sanctions against it. In Kim’s eyes, all the inter-Korean cooperation and advances of 2018 mean nothing since the Hanoi Summit of 2019 failed, forcing Kim to return home empty-handed.

“If the U.S. is to lift sanctions, which in turn would likely spark a wider sanctions rollback, then the North needs to offer some concrete concessions, ideally related to nuclear warheads and missiles,” Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, told The Diplomat. He added that Kim’s offer at the Hanoi summit, dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanctions relief, was not a fair trade and Pyongyang needs to cough up more to make a deal.

As of now, Washington and Pyongyang have both confirmed that they have clear boundaries for making a deal, and it’s hard to see how to reconcile their positions. However, the South Korean government still hopes to have Kim Jong Un visit Seoul before the end of Moon’s term in May 2022. Considering the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Seoul might be content with even a virtual meeting with Kim.

At the press conference for foreign correspondents based in Seoul on January 27, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said “Kim made a promise to visit Seoul” and expressed hope that another inter-Korean summit may happen if Pyongyang agrees to reactivate its dialogue with Seoul.

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To overcome the current deadlock, some experts have advocated for a declaration formally ending the Korean War. Proponents say an end-of-war declaration could reactivate the stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang, but critics believe it could lead a gradual break in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

“There can be no real peace without justice, no justice without transparency, and no transparency with a totalitarian state that’s practiced in the art of strategic deception,” Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told The Diplomat. Lee added that the United States knows an end-of-war statement is a prelude to a peace treaty without denuclearization – and that will lead to the dismantlement of the Combined Forces Command and calls for the eviction of United States Forces Korea.

“‘Peace’ sounds pleasantly sweet, but the de facto peace is maintained not by paper agreements but credible deterrence,” Lee said. “The Biden administration will not bite. It will eschew what is not only fake peace but a ploy to compel the U.S. forces to vacate Korea.”